Editor's Viewpoint: Built in haste now repented at leisure
In the 1970s direct rule ministers were willing to throw money at any measure which might help stop rioting on the streets.
One of those initiatives was building leisure centres in Belfast and, given the zero-sum politics of the province, whatever one side of the community got, the other side also wanted. And so we ended up with 10 recreational facilities, some just a few streets apart. The cost of building them was borne by the Exchequer but that was a one-off payment. The centres consistently made a loss which had to be borne by the ratepayers.
And that loss has increased over the years. In the past five years the deficit totalled a staggering £45m with each of the 10 centres returning a loss. That is an unsustainable burden on the ratepayers, especially in these times of austerity. While Belfast City Council is undertaking a review of its leisure provision, this is an exercise which should have been initiated much earlier. Two centres have already been closed and more may have to follow.
One suggestion is to reduce the number of centres to four, all sited to embrace the widest possible catchment area. But, inevitably, no councillor will vote for any leisure centre in his or her area to be shut, no matter how compelling the financial evidence. And there remains the problem of division within the city where people are fearful of venturing too far into what they would regard as enemy territory. Yet closures seem the logical step, especially given the large number of private centres that also exist in the city.
In the meantime, the council review should concentrate on how to make the leisure centres as attractive as possible to residents in their area by tailoring facilities to local needs and work patterns. Also, as the health benefits of regular exercise are undeniable and help reduce the drain on health service funds, the council should work more closely with GPs and other health professionals to encourage greater use of facilities. Council run services rarely demonstrate very good value for money, but current expenditure on leisure is beyond acceptable limits.